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Every Body: A First Conversation About Bodies
Kids are bombarded with untrue messages about bodies, starting in early childhood. Despite the growing scientific consensus that bodies can be healthy at any size, our society’s pervasive pro-thin/ anti-fat biases begin to be internalized well before children enter kindergarten. Preschoolers are already learning that our society values certain bodies above all other bodies. As grown-ups, we have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to change this untrue story that can hinder healthy development for all children. We can tell the truth about bodies and create loving environments in which every child knows, deep in their bones, that they are just right, exactly as they are. This book is a great place to begin or continue the conversation. It’s okay to take a break, leave something out for now, or weave in stories of your own.
Our goal as parents and caregivers is to help children learn how to be in a healthy, joyful relationship with their bodies. To do this,we can nurture their body awareness, intuition, and self-love. We can help children understand what their bodies do—for example, bodies cry when they’re sad, sweat when they’re hot, and fart when there’s air trapped inside—and these functions are natural, not shameful.We can help them listen to and trust what their bodies are telling them by giving them language to describe their needs and feelings. We can empower children to know that they have control of their own bodies by giving them autonomy and agency in daily routines. And finally, we can inspire and affirm them by celebrating their bodies, and all bodies! Affirm body diversity in dramatic play, books, and everyday observations. For example, you can say: “I love how there are so many different bodies in our family/school/community/this book.”
SELF-CARE & COMMUNITY CARE
We all have needs! We need food, water, and rest. We need belonging, connection, and meaning. One of the beautiful things about community is that we get to work together to support one another and meet our collective needs. Our ultimate goal for children is healthy interdependence. To do this,we can first help them identify their individual needs and develop the habits and routines that meet them. From there, we can teach them to tune in and be responsive to the needs of the other people in their family and community. You can start by actively listening to their needs and stating them back to them. For example, if your child is cranky, you can say: “It seems like maybe your body is tired. What do you think you might need? How can I help you? I’d love to read you a story when you’re ready to lie down.” Remember that as grown-ups and caregivers, we have needs, too. Modeling how to articulate your own needs helps young children begin to tune in and respond to the needs of others.
A core concept of this book is that all bodies change. They change over the course of a day, a week, and a lifetime. And all this change is normal, natural, and amazing! Many bodies get bigger as they grow from child to adult. Sometimes bodies get pregnant. There are some times in our life when our bodies have more fat and other times when they have less. Older bodies often develop wrinkles. Sometimes people decide to change their bodies. They might take medicine or have surgery that makes them feel better or more at home in their body. They might get a tattoo or a piercing. People get haircuts all the time! Our goal is to help children orient toward all this change with curiosity, and without shame. Practice noticing some of the ways that your child’s body has changed since they were a baby and talk openly and honestly with them about their questions.
Human bodies come in so many different shapes and sizes! Unfortunately, some people think that the best way for bodies to be is thin.When we internalize that untrue idea, we end up spending a lot of time and money thinking that something is wrong with our bodies and trying to “fix” them. Even doctors may perpetuate these untrue ideas— research shows that many medical professionals hold harmful anti-fat biases, using Body Mass Index (BMI) and growth charts that don’t consider body diversity. One of the most powerful ways to support children to resist these messages is to call them out when you see, hear, or experience them, even in the pediatrician’s office. You can request that doctors not discuss or focus on your child’s weight when they are present, as that can be scary and confusing for children.
While disability justice isn’t the focus of this book, it’s quite impossible to talk about body diversity and liberation without talking about ableism. Ableism is a system of power that values able bodies and minds over all others. This system of oppression connects to so many other systems of oppression (like racism and sexism, for example) and is held up by a socially constructed web of ideas about what kind of bodies and minds are normal, excellent, and desirable. We can disrupt ableism with young children by answering their questions about disabilities openly and honestly, and if questions don’t come up, introduce books with characters with disabilities to jump-start a conversation.
Many of our society’s harmful, untrue ideas about bodies came out of a particular time and place. More specifically, many of these fatphobic ideas came out of Western Europe around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were deeply connected to the proliferation of racist and Christian hegemonic ideas in the United States (and globally). The truth is that Body Mass Index (BMI) is a bogus indicator of health, and that human bodies can be healthy at any size. Our society’s obsession with thinness and vilification of fatness has nothing to do with a concern about well-being. Learning more about systemic body oppression can help prepare you for the questions your children will have as they get older.
BODY LIBERATION & FAT ACTIVISM
We want to get free from the idea that there is one right kind of body to have, and one right way to feel about that body. The “Body Positivity” movement has roots in fat activism and was ignited by fat, BIPOC, queer, trans, and disabled people. But if the current-day movement doesn’t truly include all bodies or acknowledge how fatphobia intersects with race, disability, age, gender, and class, then the movement won’t free anybody. Luckily, there are fat activists and leaders of all genders, racial identities, and ethnic backgrounds leading us toward a more inclusive body liberation movement. We can support children in this movement by creating space for them to love their bodies, but we can also emphasize that there are many ways to feel good, healthy, and whole.
CRITICAL MEDIA LITERACY
Television, movies, books, music, apps, commercials . . . most of us cannot protect our children from the pervasive and untrue messages about bodies that saturate our media. We can, however, equip them with the skills to consume media with a critical eye. When you’re reading together, pause and notice out loud some of the unfair patterns you see. Tell your children how it makes you feel and ask them about their feelings. Before you know it, your own child will be the one who’s noticing and calling it to your attention.
BODY TALK & AFFIRMATIONS
Pay attention to what you say about bodies; your children are listening. For example, when was the last time your child overheard you saying something kind about your own body? A simple and effective strategy for helping children build a healthy relationship with their body is to take time every day to love on yourselves together. It can help to connect this practice to a routine you already have in place, like brushing your teeth. You can say affirmations in the bathroom mirror.Try:“I can trust my body” or “My body belongs to me.”